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Somali-American statehouse candidates make history with one confirmed victory and one apparent win

Ari Snider
Maine Public
Mana Abdi, a Lewiston Democrat, won House District 95 unopposed after her Republican opponent dropped out in August. She is the first Somali-American elected to the Maine Legislature.

It didn't take long after polls closed on Tuesday for Mana Abdi to make history as the first Somali-American elected to the Maine Legislature.

Abdi, a Lewiston Democrat, won her race for House District 95 unopposed after her Republican opponent dropped out of the race in August, too late for the GOP to find a replacement candidate.

And while Abdi was the first, it appears all but certain that she won't be alone. While the results are not yet final, South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac is winning her race for House District 120 68% to 32%, with nearly all the votes counted.

"I'm really excited," Dhalac said, moments after hearing the news of her apparent victory from a reporter while at an election watch party Tuesday night. "I'm ready to serve the people of District 120 in South Portland."

Ari Snider
South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac, seated, reacts to news of her apparent victory in House District 120. With her, from left, are Cadeau Assoumani, Portland school board member Yusuf Yusuf, and Westbrook city councilor Claude Rwaganje.

Dhalac, who less than a year ago made history by becoming the country's first Somali-American mayor, was a late entrant into the race for House District 120 this year.

She entered the contest in July, after incumbent Democrat Victoria Morales withdrew from the race.

Dhalac told Maine Public at the time that she wanted to be an advocate in Augusta for immigrant communities, "And also those who are marginalized, to see that there is somebody that can be their voice at the state level."

On Tuesday, Dhalac reiterated those aspirations, and said a big reason she got into the race in the first place was to serve as an example for younger immigrants.

"So I said, 'we have all of these young people in our community that are so vibrant, and so well educated, and so well driven, I need to really step up and do this,'" she said.

Now, Dhalac said she hopes her apparent victory will help inspire that younger generation to run for office.

"I want them to be, you knowing, saying that, 'OK, if she did it, I can really do it."

Ari Snider
South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac, center in red headscarf, at an election watch party Tuesday night. Dhalac's apparent victory in the race for House District 120 makes her the second Somali-American elected to the Maine Legislature, after Lewiston Democrat Mana Abdi was declared the winner of her unopposed race earlier in the night.

In Augusta, Dhalac said she plans to continue focusing on issues that have long been priorities for her: Climate change, affordable housing, and cultural inclusion.

Dhalac's mayoral appointment ends in December, and she said she plans to serve out the remaining year of her city council term while also serving in state government.

And she'll be serving alongside fellow Democrat Mana Abdi, in what appears likely to be a continued Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature.

But while Dhalac underlined her desire to serve as a role model for immigrant youth and youth of color, Abdi said she didn't view her identity as central to her campaign, at least not at first.

"I don't necessarily think being Somali is the most interesting thing about me," Abdi said last week, reflecting on her expected victory as an unopposed candidate. "But someone was talking about, like, 'Hey, this is really significant for a lot of people, maybe think of it from that way.'"

Abdi said she started to see that the historic nature of her candidacy was resonating with some Lewiston residents when, she said, other young people from the city's immigrant communities began posting pictures of her campaign signs on social media, tagging her in the posts.

"As if to say 'Hey look I found your sign!' And I'm like, 'It didn't appear there magically - I put it there!'" she said, with a laugh.

Still, Abdi said she is more focused on pursuing her priorities in the State House. Those include addressing the state's affordable housing shortage and increasing funding and support for education.

A woman wearing a white shirt holds a clipboard outside a house.
Ari Snider
Mana Abdi folds a campaign flyer while canvassing voters in Lewiston's House District 95 over the summer. Abdi said running for office in Lewiston solidified her appreciation to her hometown.

Abdi, who grew up in Lewiston, said campaigning in the city has helped solidify her appreciation of her hometown, which she said too often gets unfairly maligned.

"Despite having people say negative things, there are people who go to the end of Earth to make Lewiston a better place for every citizen that lives here," she said. "Despite it all, Lewiston deserves the best, and I hope we have a lot more great people coming after me to represent it."

The Maine Legislature is set to convene in December.